Monday, June 7, 2010

Still on the language-and-style bender

17. The Grammar Devotional by Mignon Fogarty
Isn't that the best author name ever? Mignon? Makes me think of these luxurious Easter eggs we used to have, made by Fazer: they were not merely chocolate eggs, but real egg shells filled to the brim with delicious chocolate, and sealed back up again. And they were called Mignon eggs.


Fogarty's idea is this: if there are so many devotional books, which encourage you to read one page per day to find some inspiration for your everyday life, why not have one for grammar? So, each teeny tiny entry (max. half a teeny page) is designed to be read on a certain week day. Most of the time Mondays are dedicated for punctuation, Tuesdays for vocab and spelling, and Wednesdays for word rock stars (such as the man who maintains the Language Log).

It's a really cute book, and the tiny entries are able to pack a lot of grammatical punch into them by explaining the rule in one or two memorable sentences (that usually have to do with the antics of an Aardvark and a snail called Squiggle...). Fogarty also takes style to task, and reminds the reader every now and then that although one usage of a word or grammatical issue is preferred or more prevalent, there are other options available that are not wrong--people are just told that they are. She suggests ways in which you may use a word without getting a lecture from either the prescriptivists or the descriptivists. Fun!

Apparently, she also has a podcast. I have to check it out.

18. When You See an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse by Ben Yagoda

"In the end, it came down to two potential titles. Number one, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. Number two, Pimp My Ride."

Already that had me in stitches, and the book had barely even started! Yagoda's wry humor and observations really carry this wonderful book on style. It tackles style of speech one part at a time (adjectives, nouns, interjections, adverbs--the whole lot is there), and tries--much like Fogarty--to build a bridge between descriptivists and prescriptivists. Yagoda just has a different approach: he rather likes to point out why both of the sides are wrong and way too extreme. I like it! Also, I have to like anyone who takes a stab at Dan Brown at every possible turn just in the name of giving examples on bad style*, and who refers to Buffy, the Vampire Slayer as a notable source for linguistic trickery.

Instead of going on lengthy lectures, Yagoda occasionally selects a punchier approach for bringing the point home. As an example, he counters the old "Thou shalt not end a sentence with a preposition" silliness with a couple of jokes (among the more obvious reasons for why this is a silly rule). Here's one:
"A guy from South Philadelphia, on vacation in London, asks a bowler-hatted gent, 'Where's the subway at?' The Londoner replies, 'Don't you Yanks realize that it's poor English to end a sentence with a preposition?' To which the South Philly guy says, 'Okay, where's the subway at, asshole?'"

The title is attributed to Mark Twain. Oftentimes, adjectives are not encouraged because they make a writer lazy: it's easier to say that a character is angry, instead of showing the signs of anger in the character. Or it's easier (and thus much more vague) to say that someone is old, instead of writing how the age shows in the character. Although Yagoda also has his criticism toward adverbs, he makes a case for why they and adjectives are sometimes needed. Additionally, he talks about a bunch of words that are adverbs but that are often used by the same people who abhor adverbs--they just don't happen to end in the classic -ly.

My favorite bits were in the interjections section, where Yagoda ponders about the versatility of those short utterances. He quotes a popular Internet meme among military folk on the Marine utterance "hoo-ah", whose meaning ranges from "Sir, yes Sir!" to "that is enough of your drivel." It's pretty amazing that one word (or rather, an utterance), can have such variety in meaning, and we all seem to be able to get those nuances. If "hoo-ah" is too foreign, think of the word "hey", and in how many ways it can be used.

I would love to quote this book here endlessly, but I'll just leave it at this vague, adjectival description: it's a really fun book to read, overall.

*The first of the at least four jabs I noticed: Yagoda writes about how great American novels often begin with the definite article, the, instead of the more British tradition of a.

He lists some great American novels, and ends the list with "...The Color Purple, The Corrections and The Da Vinci Code. (Just kidding about that last one.)"

Haha! This foreshadows the later chapters, where Dan Brown is taken to task more than once for his horrid writing style.


  1. I'll have to give that Devotional a try. Sounds like a good way to keep motivated about writing as well as friendly reminders on good grammar.

  2. It is a really cute book. I still haven't checked the podcast, but I can imagine it's just as entertaining and a great dose of grammar to start one's day. :)